Rather frightening, I think.
By Andy Jordan, Tech Live
Face it, you're more concerned with who was voted off the latest reality television island than where California governor wanna-be Arnold Schwarzenegger stands on health care.
A futurist at a pioneering new technology school in Italy has come up with a technological solution that could help you weed through all the political issues without picking up a newspaper, visiting a website, or even, someday, stepping into a voting booth.
Tonight on "Tech Live," meet this forward thinker who, despite having something potentially revolutionary on his hands, isn't even recommending the program he's developed.
Democracy's digital downfall?
Jason Tester, 25, has spent the last two years in the foothills of the Italian Alps in a small town called Ivrea. He's been looking into American democracy. The Interaction Design Institute Ivera is a very new school, built to develop new products and services. One of its first big thinkers, Tester, was a Stanford-educated American worried about where his country's democracy is headed.
"People are used to technology in their voting now. I just wanted to see what happened when you take that further," he says. He admits he's worried about the trend toward touch-screen voting machines and other technology-enhanced voting mechanisms.
You might call him the George Orwell of voting technology, since Tester has been playing devil's advocate with his own philosophy. He built a prototype for what he thinks could be the future of voting: an agent that mines your online and other computer habits to extract a political ideology, and then makes voting recommendations and votes for you.
He calls it "Constituty," and it could act as a sort of McVoting for the masses. No knowledge of politics required. Indeed, no knowledge of candidates required, either.
Voting guilt trip
Tester flirts with worse-case scenarios in laying out his theory for future voting.
"I think the service, if it existed, would try to play upon the guilt people feel for not voting," he says.
Constituty would look at the webpages you surf, your online bank account, and even keywords and emoticons in your instant messages. If it spotted the words "smogday" next to "environment" and a frowning emoticon, for instance, it would conclude that you care about the environment.
Tester says customizing software is paving the way for a real Constituty.
"There are bits and pieces of customizing and profiling software out there, just nothing's been applied to voting," he says. "It's the last sacred space."
Elaborate, frightening theories
Tester has started a website, AcceleratedDemocracy, to create a forum on the future of technology, voting, and democracy. The site graphically features Tester's entire theory of future voting, when Constituty can be bought off store shelves and will work like the old Microsoft "Clippy" application helper.
In the scenario laid out on the site, Constituty recommends candidates for the user and then offers to place a vote, whether or not the user asks for more information on how Constituty arrived at its decision.
Tester's theory is elaborate, but, frighteningly enough, not totally absurd. In another scenario, location-based voting demands a voter spend time in the woods in order to vote on a ballot measure to save a certain park.
In "Exercise Your Vote," voting power is given only to those who are informed on candidates or issues, and rewards them with political payback after votes are cast via cellphone or PDA, or even at ATM-like voter kiosks.
Finally, as Tester sees it, voters could track candidates' performance on how well they fulfill, or fail, on campaign promises.
Progressive, but not outrageous
But Stanford computer science professor David Dill isn't convinced the technology is ready, or will be anytime soon.
"I hope he's wrong about that being a likely scenario," Dill scoffs.
Noting that technological innovations happen over time and are usually modeled after the previous technology, Dill does acknowledge that Tester's idea is nothing but progressive.
"A computer program that decides how you should vote and votes for you is definitely a radical innovation," Dill says.
Dill started his own website, VerifiedVoting.org, to rally support for the idea of building a type of paper receipt or other type of verification from computer-tallied voting. As his website says, the goal is to avoid voting debacles like the 2000 presidential election, and electronic voting isn't the answer, yet.
Needless to say, Dill isn't too psyched on Tester's prediction for the future.
"To have a computer program try to guess how you're going to vote when who knows what kind of logic it's using, and who programmed that agent, is well beyond anything I would consider acceptable," Dill says.
So why did Tester do it?
A cautionary tale, perhaps. He considers where we're headed is "the downfall of democracy -- one-click voting when you barely know who you're voting for."